Saboteurs: How your subconscious impacts your work, life, and relationships

Everyone has a preferred style of working. Some people will send constant updates to their team, some won’t say a word until the task is done.

Similarly, everyone has a style of handling setbacks at work. Some people obsess over what went wrong, trying to ensure it will never happen again. Some people blame themselves. Others blame everyone else.

There are psychological forces at work that influence how we behave, how we handle problems, and how we work with others. The negative elements of these can be referred to as ‘saboteurs’, and they can have a serious impact across our careers.

What are saboteurs?

Saboteurs are habitual patterns our minds adopt, often learned or developed in childhood. These patterns are almost entirely unhelpful, leading to stress, disappointment, anger, or even shame. Different people have different saboteurs, which impact them in different ways.

This quote from the Positive Intelligence website helps to illustrate saboteurs:

‘Saboteurs are the voices in your head that generate negative emotions in the way you handle life’s everyday challenges. They represent automated patterns in your mind for how to think, feel, and respond. They cause all of your stress, anxiety, self-doubt, frustration, restlessness, and unhappiness. They sabotage your performance, wellbeing, and relationships.’

It’s clear these patterns have a big impact on our lives in general, but they can also undermine our performance at work.

The different types of saboteurs:


Everyone deals with the judge saboteur to some extent. This saboteur manifests through self-criticism of past mistakes, causing excessive worry about making those same mistakes in the future. It leads to stress, which lowers your overall effectiveness, and can make you more vulnerable to other saboteurs.


The victim saboteur often makes us focus on our shortcomings, and generates intense negative feelings: loneliness, shame, guilt, frustration, helplessness. People with the victim saboteur are often unable to handle any external criticism, as there is already so much happening internally.


People with the pleaser saboteur overextend themselves by trying to please everyone. If we do this, we can lose sight of what we need to do ourselves, leading to piling up deadlines, and a lot of stress.


Someone with the restless saboteur is always looking for something new to occupy their time and energy. They can be easily distracted and are often impatient. Unable to truly focus on a single task means people with this saboteur can struggle with meeting deadlines or delivering work of consistent quality.


Those with the hyper-vigilant saboteur are constantly looking out for danger. They worry about how things might go wrong, doubting themselves and others, putting strain on their relationships.


The hyper-achiever looks for validation through work. This might sound like a helpful trait when it comes to your career, but people with this saboteur often find themselves burntout, having worked every evening and at the weekends instead of switching off properly.

When happiness is only felt through achievement, the need to succeed becomes all-consuming, leading to unhealthy behaviours and working patterns which can damage our wider relationships.


This is another saboteur that might sound helpful at first but analysing the world through the lens of rationality and objectivity means often overlooking the emotional angle.

People with this saboteur can struggle to understand others, and while they may excel at their work, they might struggle when it comes to building relationships.


People with this saboteur feel an urge to always be in charge, as being in control equals safety in their mind. Controllers often push people beyond their comfort zone, which while sometimes does get results, other times leads to conflict.


People with this saboteur are perfectionists. Demanding a high level of control, they want things done their way, with high levels of criticism for anything that doesn’t measure up to their standards.


The avoider does exactly what it sounds like. They avoid problems, procrastinate, and focus only on the positives while ignoring the negatives. This of course isn’t sustainable, and leads to missed deadlines, or rushed work.

While saboteurs can be difficult to deal with, they don’t have to be a problem forever. They can be addressed and dealt with.

We’ll be looking at the saboteurs in more detail and writing about how to tackle them when it comes to your work life.

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Posted on: 8th June 2022